The promise by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to turn over about 3,000 ads placed by Russian interests during the 2016 Presidential campaign to Congress and Special Counsel Robert Mueller is only the beginning of a new effort to get a handle on online political advertising.
Zuckerberg has now also promised that Facebook will develop new methods of spotting political advertising and hire 250 employees to manage the process.
But Facebook is only one medium for political advertising and the fake news that frequently accompanies it. So far, there have been no assurances of such support from others, including Google. Soon, however, they may not have much choice. The Federal Election Commission has voted to reopen an assessment to update the FEC’s online disclosure rules in a rare unanimous vote.
The Commission plans to hold hearings on proposed rulemaking to update its internet advertising rules that were put in place in 2006. Commissioners have said that they plan to invite representatives from Facebook, Twitter, Google and other large services to attend public hearings on new regulations. The online services have opposed such restrictions in the past mainly because they were inconvenient.
According to a href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/09/22/facebook-google-and-twitter-could-face-a-new-law-targeting-shadowy-political-ads/?utm_term=.5e3fde547f27&wpisrc=nl_tech&wpmm=1″ data-mce-href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/09/22/facebook-google-and-twitter-could-face-a-new-law-targeting-shadowy-political-ads/?utm_term=.5e3fde547f27&wpisrc=nl_tech&wpmm=1″>The Washington Post, Senators Mark Warner (D-Va) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) have sent a letter to their colleagues in the U.S. Senate asking for support for a bill that would place disclosure requirements on online platforms similar to the ones for television. In the letter, the Senators say that the FEC has failed to address online political advertising adequately and that current laws don’t address them either.
The letter suggested that while the Senators were pleased with Facebook’s stated plans so far, the proposed legislation would formalize the process and apply it to online services in general. As currently planned, the bill would require platforms with a million or more users to create a public database of all “electioneering communications” purchased by any person or group who spends more than $10,000 on online political ads.
The database would include a digital copy of each ad, the intended audience, number of views, when the ad ran, its price and who paid for the ad. The Federal Communications Commission already maintains a similar database for television ads.
The FEC already has disclosure rules for online advertising that apply to political committees and groups, such as Political Actions Committees and to individuals. But those rules only require reporting by the groups covered by the FEC.
The laws don’t specifically apply to ads and similar material purchased by other interests, including Russian intelligence groups. The goal of the proposed legislation is to require disclosure of political ads from those sources as well by making the ad sellers responsible for disclosures as well.
It’s important to remember that much of the political advertising that appears online isn’t the same thing you see on television with a 30-second promise of some sort or a 60-second attack ad by some PAC.
Instead, much of the online advertising is in the form of fake news stories that are placed on social media services and are made to look like legitimate news stories as much as possible. While candidates still do run traditional political ads online, which are covered by current FEC requirements, there’s a vast array that’s not.
For example, the fake news story in 2016 that claimed that a Washington, DC, pizza restaurant was really a cover for a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton is an example of a fake news political ad that would require disclosure under the proposed rules. But because the origin of the ad and its related story was shadowy at best, this is an area where the online service that accepted it would have to perform the required disclosures.
In addition to exposing the interests trying to have an impact on U.S. elections, the rules would require that the online services selling the ads actually know who was buying them. Currently the advertising process is so highly automated that there’s little knowledge and thus little transparency, into who is buying ads and who is trying to influence political activities in the U.S.
Of course it would be naïve to suggest that such requirements would eliminate fake news, or that it would expose all foreign influences on U.S. elections. After all, quite a bit of the fake news during the 2016 wasn’t part of political advertising at all. A remarkable amount came from a group of Macedonian teenagers with fertile imaginations who used fake news to generate ad dollars and the disclosure requirements probably wouldn’t affect that.
But the requirements would shine a light on activities such as the Russian ads that Facebook is now exposing and it would do it beyond just Facebook.
While the online services such as Google and Facebook have fought disclosure rules in the past mostly because they didn’t want to do it, claiming inconvenience, every other medium that accepts political advertising has found a way. There’s no reason that online services with their intelligent automated system can’t also do it. They can probably do it with remarkable ease if they wanted to gather the information for their own uses exclusive of any government reporting requirements.
The online services have reached the age of responsibility especially because they have acquired an important role in our election process. So part of being a major force in social media and the shaping of political opinion in this country is accepting that responsibility.